Slouching Toward Bedlam

How to Succeed in School Without Really Trying, or And Then There Was One


Gord Winkle sighed. School had started two weeks ago, but he still didn’t have his metal shop up and running the way it was supposed to be; it had taken longer than anyone estimated to repair the damage from the fire at the end of last year. He had also had to write new lesson plans almost every day and really stretch himself because they had so few working table saws and drill presses. He was tired and hungry and he just wanted to go home—but instead, Bedlam’s entire faculty had to report to the auditorium to meet the new BCHS student recruiter and development director, Chester “Skip” Rykhorst. The memo that Principal VanderHaar sent out promised that Skip would share some ways that the faculty could help in the recruiting effort.

Gord looked at his watch and sighed again. He was late. He grabbed a pad of graph paper, locked up the shop, and trudged toward the auditorium.

VanderHaar was on the stage, mopping at his forehead with a handkerchief as he explained that enrollment had come in under board projections for the third straight year. Winkle slipped quietly into the back row, next to his buddy, gym teacher Rex Kane.

“Hidey-ho, neighbor,” Rex said. “Old Bentley is just giving us the lowdown on how low down our enrollment is.” He chuckled at his own wisecrack and dug his elbow into Gord’s ribs. Gord ignored him and turned his attention to the stage. Next to VanderHaar stood a young man who looked barely older than the seniors Gord taught in metal shop. VanderHaar looked like his best friend had just died, but the young man was beaming.

“And so,” VanderHaar concluded, “the board has hired Skip Rykhorst as our new recruitment and development director. He has big plans to right our ship, and some of those plans involve you. Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to introduce Skip.”

A smattering a polite applause greeted the new director who took the podium with, dared Gord describe it this way, elfin glee.

“Marketing, folks! It’s all marketing,” Skip said in a high voice.

Rex leaned into Winkle and whispered, “Do you think this kid’s hit puberty yet?”

Gord shushed his friend as Skip continued.

“For three straight years, Bedlam’s enrollment has dropped, but you offer a great education, a great product. To me, that means one thing and one thing only—you have a branding problem. So let me ask all of you, what is the Bedlam brand? What does it represent?”

A thick silence shrouded the auditorium, but Skip just kept smiling. Finally, English teacher Christina Lopez raised her hand.

“We are a school, not a brand,” she said. “We are trying to help students realize their full potential as citizens in the kingdom of God. We are not selling blue jeans.”

Skip, if possible, smiled even bigger. “I have another question for you then. What is a brand?”

Another silence until counselor Maxwell Prentiss-Hall, the school counselor, shouted from two rows in front of Gord, “A brand is a company name. Like Nike or Levis.”

“Well, Bedlam Christian High is a name, is it not?” Skip replied. “So by your own definition, you do have a brand. Furthermore, a brand is more than just a name. Deepak Chopra described a brand as ‘as a kind of myth . . . a compelling story that is archetypal. . . . It has to have emotional content and all the themes of a great story: mystery, magic, adventure, intrigue, conflicts, contradiction, paradox.’ I think that is a good place to start understanding brand. What story is Bedlam telling? Is it a great story? Are we telling it clearly? These are questions of brand, questions of marketing.”

Skip paused, as if he expected applause or acclamation. Only Maxwell was nodding, but Maxwell always encouraged the speaker in an event such as this. Gord reflected that even if VanderHaar was announcing that the entire faculty was going to be imprisoned in a dank cell with rats and alligators and only a single crouton per day to eat, Maxwell would still be nodding his head off.

Skip continued. “So in order to build this brand, I need your help—I need your stories. I need to hear about the great work that you do with our students. Then we’ll perform a market analysis, figure out which stories need to be delivered to which markets, and develop a multipronged marketing campaign to leverage our brand effectively. This will involve some exciting focus groups that I will be asking several of you to serve on later. For today, though, I am going to break you up into groups. Each group will appoint a recorder, who will write down all the stories you tell, and then later in the week I will call some of you in to my office for follow-ups.”

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Jan Kaarsvlam recently finished a new book on flipping Christian school real estate, entitled From Soccer Fields to Strip Malls: Repurposing Extraneous School Facilities for Profit. In it, he examines underutilized real estate at shrinking Christian schools. He reveals his foolproof plan for how school boards can turn millions of dollars in real estate into hundreds of dollars in cash.